Pamela’s Mask: Misperception of Self and Others in Virtue Rewarded

To get into men’s affections, women in general are naturally desirous. They need not deny, they cannot conceal it. The sexes were made for each other. When you show a sweet solicitude to please by every decent, gentle, unaffected attraction; we are soothed, we are subdued, we yield ourselves your willing captives. But if at any time by a forward appearance you seem resolved, as it were, to force our admiration; that moment we are upon our guard and your assaults are vain

-Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women

Masking often, if not always, involves hiding the individual’s true identity and showing a fraudulent, and often idealized, representation of self. This means of deception is often invoked by the literary female persona in order to gain power over the male characters, or to advance their socio-economic status. Some fictional literary characters, such as Louisa May Alcott’s Jean Muir (Behind a Mask, 1866), mask their own motifs from the characters within the novel, but allow the reader, to some extent, a glimpse of their thoughts; while other characters, like Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, are so self-absorbed within their own mask of self-righteousness that they eventually become the mask they wear. Either way, whether the character controls the mask or the mask controls the character, it is evident that the mask is used to reach an otherwise unreachable goal. Although Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is constantly praising herself as a woman of extreme virtues and calling herself “most dutiful daughter” (6), it may also be that Pamela is, in truth, putting on a mask of innocence and virtue in order to achieve her ultimate goal: marry into elite society through Mr. B.

According to Gwilliam, Richardson invokes duplicity and hypocrisy in his representation of Pamela (115). In the third letter, when faced with her parents’ concern that Mr. B might forcefully engage her in some sort of unsolicited sexual practice, Pamela writes “I will die a thousand deaths, rather than be dishonest any way” (8). Pamela would rather die than cheat, steal, or be deceitful in any way. However, this is exactly what Pamela does. After Mr. B’s first attempt at rape (24), Pamela is faced with the decision to return home to poverty, or to remain in Mr. B’s household. Although her parents had cautioned her that she should return home, for they “would sooner live upon the water, and, if possible, the clay of the ditches I contentedly dig, than live better at the price of our child’s ruin” (7), Pamela decides to stay in Mr. B’s household. Although the astute reader may suspect certain reasons behing her staying in Mr. B’s household, her true reasons are unknown to the reader until her ‘virtue’ is ‘rewarded’ towards the end of the story in the form of marriage into the high society. Still, Pamela does give the reader a sort of explanation of her reasons for staying, reasons which, of course, have nothing to do with her want of an upper class marriage or her outright disobedience to her parents. Her reason is that her parents had told her to heed Mrs’ Jervis’ advice. Pamela’s subversive and eclectic use of her parents’ instructions; “And so, as you ordered me to take her advice, I resolved to tarry to see” (18); label Pamela as someone who recurs to the use of masking, someone who uses appearances and language technicalities as a guise for her own purposes.

Pamela’s dishonesty, however, does not end after the first attempted rape. After learning of this situation, her parents advice Pamela: “You have our hourly prayers; and we would have you flee this evil great house and man, if you find he renews his attempts” (19). As expected, Mr. B. renews his attempts at rape. If  Pamela truly were the “most dutiful DAUGHTER” (50) she portrays herself as, she would have left, as her parents say she should. However, she tells her parents “Oh! I forgot to say, that I would stay to finish the waistcoat, if I might with safety” (35). This open disobedience to her parents’ commands while still portraying herself as the ever-virtuous daughter and house-maid is a perceptible badge of deceit: she is hypocritically cheating her parents, the reader, and possibly herself, into believing that she is a truly virtuous and dutiful daughter and human being who simply wants to do good, when, in fact, all that she is doing is going against her parents’ explicit instructions: to leave the household should Mr. B attempt to rape her again.

The making of the waistcoat itself is another way in which Pamela attempts to surpass socio-economic boundaries and maneuver one step closer to her goal: becoming Mr. B’s wife. Bruckmann states that after the second instance of attempted rape, “She is responsible for all the fine linen of the family….and [she is] flowering a waistcoat. Both of these are activities for a servant of special status or for a wife” (203). Through the making of the waistcoat, Pamela is assuming the responsibilities of a virtuous, eighteenth century wife. Her knowledge of embroidery, which she learned from ‘her ladyship’ Ms. B, also helps fuel her mask. Since embroidery was traditionally an activity reserved for women of high  status, Pamela can now pose as a wife, thanks to the making of the waistcoat and the taking care of the household’s clothing, and as a woman of high social standing, thanks to the embroidery.

Gwilliam states that “the ideal woman must not only construct herself for a vigilant-and perhaps capricious-male gaze, she also must not see herself as the object of the gaze she courts; her skill in dress must be unreflecting, her response to responses inattentive” (109). In addition to masking herself to appear to be innocent, the ideal woman must have command over the dress code. Pamela’s relationship to the dress is evident throughout the novel. Shortly after the “twelvemonth” of Ms. B’s death, Mr. B takes Pamela by the hand and tells her that he will make a gentlewoman of her, and kisses her (168). This is when, according to Bruckmann, Pamela begins to seriously consider flight. Bruckmann states that  “her reflections on possible flight center on dress. If she runs away with just the clothes she has, she is “pretty well drest” and liable to come to harm. She wishes for the “grey Russet” in which she came” (203). Conboy also makes an argument for Pamela’s control over clothing, as well as for her control of masks. She states that although Pamela knows that Mr. B’s well-dressed, angelic exterior is a mask, very much like her own, she continues to support that mask: “Pamela mentions, with no apparent recognition of their significance, shows her own ties to the world of appearances, for she continues to care for Mr. B.’s linen, thereby ensuring that his deceptive exterior remains the same.” (Conboy, 84). Pamela’s relationship to clothing is as evident as her ‘virtues’, which never seem to be questioned. Gwilliam states that “women’s behavior and bodies were supposed to provoke desire, but women were forbidden from intending to provoke desire, or from being conscious of their desirability” (106). This is the kind of ‘virtuous’ behavior that Pamela displays throughout the novel. This combination of virtues make Pamela the apex of everything considered feminine. However, femininity is a mask in itself. Gwilliam states that it is “a mask, behind which man suspects some hidden Danger and it is, for a woman, a dangerous tool which can be turned back on her in the form of accusations that she is duplicitous, hypocritical, or a usurper of masculine prerogative” (111).

Of course, the mask of duplicity is not only worn by Pamela, but also, at least according to Pamela herself, by Mr. B. Pamela writes: “For my master said, I will take care of you all, my good maidens; and for you, Pamela, (and took me by the hand; yes, he took my hand before them all,) for my dear mother’s sake, I will be a friend to you, and you shall take care of my linen” (5). Although the reader might immediately imagine what Mr. B’s true purpose in keeping Pamela is, to take advantage of her feigned innocence, Mr. B masks it by calling her a friend; and Pamela seems to, or at least pretends to, believe him. Mr. B’s mask is evident throughout the first pages of the novel, and it finally comes off after his first attempt at rape. Nonetheless, Pamela continues to contribute to Mr. B’s mask by continuing to take care of his linen. Pamela also writes about how Mr. B tells her that “I was a good girl, and faithful and diligent, he would be a friend to me, for his mother’s sake” (5). This request for Pamela’s faithfulness and diligence may come across as a request for a good friend, an exhaled house maid of sorts, but in truth, when a man looks for these qualities in a woman they become good qualities in a wife, not in a friend. It is possible that Mr. B wanted Pamela for a wife from the beginning of the novel, but due to the social difference did not act on it and simply decided to try and invade her personal space by attempting to enter her.

Pamela’s perception of those around her also seem to be clouded by appearances. Not only is Pamela trying to appear as a dutiful daughter to her parents and Mr. B tries to initially mask his intentions towards Pamela, but her focus on appearances is central to the concept f masking. When faced with her parents’ concern for her well-being, Pamela says that “Sure they can’t all have designs against me, because they are civil” (8). Although she does not know all of the servants living in the household, they all appear to be nice, so Pamela takes them at face value. Her focus on appearance is also noticeable when she writes that “She [Mrs. Jervies] told me I was a pretty wench, and that every body gave me a very good character, and loved me” (9). The first characteristic that Pamela mentions is that she is a ‘pretty wench’, and then continues to talk about her other traits.

In letter VI, Pamela displays how much she focuses on clothing for the first time. She says that “My master has been very kind since my last; for he has given me a suit of my late lady’s clothes, and half a dozen of her shifts, and six fine handkerchiefs, and three of her cambric aprons, and four holland ones” (10). Pamela does not talk about the way she is treated, she talks about all of the things that the master gave her. This can be a testament to Pamela’s superficiality, but also to her desire to mask her poor upbringing. By accepting Ms. B’s clothing, Pamela is arming herself with the tools to, at least superficially, deceive people into believing that Pamela is something that she is not: a woman of high status. Even though Pamela’s mother warns her that appearances are not as important as the actual virtues of a person, “Be sure don’t let people’s telling you, you are pretty, puff you up; for you did not make yourself, and so can have no praise due to you for it. It is virtue and goodness only, that make the true beauty.  Remember that, Pamela” (13), Pamela seems to be determined to focus on appearances, since after the first attempt at rape she calls him “O this angel of a master! this fine gentleman! this gracious benefactor to your poor Pamela!” (14), despite him having ‘shown his true colors’.

In the end, Pamela’s mask fooled everyone. She fooled her parents into believing she was an excellent daughter, she fooled Mr. B into believing that she was truly innocent, and she fooled herself into believing everything she wrote, and tricked herself into staying in Mr. B’s manor: the trigger for so many rape attempts.

While Mr. B’s behavior towards Pamela is unacceptable and inexcusable, it often seems like Pamela is the one who seeks the sexual encounters with Mr. B. One such example can be found in page 54, where Pamela is in Mrs. Jervis’ room. Pamela hears noise in the closet and asks about it, but Mrs. Jervis tells her that it is nothing to be worried about. Although she had a bad feeling about the noise, Pamela decides to stay in the room. Pamela writes: “I pulled off my stays, and my stockings, and all my clothes to an under-petticoat; and then hearing a rustling again in the closet, I said, Heaven protect us! but before I say my prayers, I must look into this closet.  And so was going to it slip-shod, when, O dreadful! Out rushed my master in a rich silk and silver morning gown” (54). Pamela knows that something is wrong and knows that there is someone hiding in the closet, so she decides to strip naked before opening the door behind which her would-be assailant is hiding. Here Pamela seems to be soliciting the sexual assault.

Still, there is more to rape in Pamela than Mr. B’s failed penetration attempts. Faulkenfit describes rape as an invasion to personal space, and the actual act of sexual assault as “the ultimate threat to Privacy” (586). If this is the case, then Mr. B succeeds at raping Pamela several times. Invasion of privacy can take many forms, some of which are trying to control one’s decisions, enquiring constantly about one’s whereabouts, and looking into someone’s personal property. It is this last invasion to privacy, looking into Pamela’s personal property, where Mr. B succeeds at raping Pamela. Pamela writes: “I went to hide the letter in my bosom […]He took it, without saying more, and read it quite through, and then gave it me again” (6). This is an obvious invasion of Pamela’s privacy and personal space. Several other successful and unsuccessful attempts to invade Pamela’s privacy through her letters are made throughout the novel. Pamela does nothing to truly prevent this from happening. While she could have left the household, as her parents suggested in Letter III, she decided to stay. Every time that Mr. B would attempt to rape her, Pamela would write a letter to her parents writing about her extreme virtues and Mr B’s ill-conceived intentions and tendencies. She would then tell her parents that she would leave and return home, but then write about some sort of meaningless task, usually one that would make her parallel to a wife, like finishing the waistcoat and taking care of the family’s linen, or to a woman of high status, like embroidery, to stay. Certainly, as Faulkenfit puts it, Pamela “she sees his [Mr. B’s]attempts to seduce her in terms of his invading a place where he does not belong” (585), meaning rape, it is just as possible that Mr. B sees Pamela’s stay as an invitation. Faulkenfit says that Pamela “searches throughout the first half of the novel for a space she can call her own” (585). She eventually finds her space in the life of a married woman: Mr. B’s wife; and, as Conboy says, “after Pamela’s marriage to Mr. B, the dramatic action of the novel falls off, and the reader soon tires of the endless compliments to Pamela’s excellence.” (92)


Rayne, Stephen. “Hayman and Gravelot’s Anti-Pamela Designs for Richardson’s

Octavo Edition of Pamela I and II .” Eighteenth-Century Life 23.3(1999): 77-93 .

Bruckmann, Patricia. “Clothes of Pamela’s Own: Shopping at B- Hall.”

Eighteenth-Century Life  25.2(2001): 201-213.

Conboy, Sheila C.. “Fabric and Fabrication in Richardson’s Pamela.” ELH, 54.1.

(Spring, 1987):. 81-96.

Turner, James Grantham. “Novel Panic: Picture and Performance in the Reception

of  Richardson’s Pamela.” Representations, 48. (Autumn, 1994):. 70-96.

Gwilliam, Tassie. “Pamela and the Duplicitous Body of Femininity”

Representations, 34. (Spring, 1991):104-133.

Folkenflik, Robert. “A Room of Pamela’s Own” ELH, 39.4. (Dec., 1972):. 585 – 596.

Ferguson, Frances. “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” Representations, 20.

(Autumn, 1987):  88-112.

Needham, Gwendolyn: “Richardson’s Characterization of Mr. B. and Double

Purpose in Pamela”Eighteenth-Century Studies, 3. 4. (Summer, 1970): 433-474.

Golden, Morris. “Public Context and Imagining Self in Pamela and Shamela”

ELH, 53.2. (Summer, 1986):. 311-329.


About Quijano

Johansen Quijano is a professor of English in The University of Texas at Arlington, where he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in English. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in the Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), a Master’s Degree in Curriculum and Development focusing on TESOL, and a Master’s Degree in English Literature. He has published and presented on a variety of topics including video game studies, popular culture studies, education, teaching methodology, language acquisition, romantic poetry, and victorian literature. His research interests include the above-mentioned topics, narrative, interactivity, simulation, new media in general, and 18th century literature. He also enjoys creative writing (fiction, historical fiction, and poetry), and reading all kinds of epic literary works - from the Epic Poem of Gilgamesh to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.

Posted on June 25, 2010, in Literature Commentary and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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